NFLPA to Choose Successor to Upshaw in Challenging Times

Troy Vincent, shown in 2006, was considered the favorite to succeed Gene Upshaw as executive director until recent allegations of misdeeds.
Troy Vincent, shown in 2006, was considered the favorite to succeed Gene Upshaw as executive director until recent allegations of misdeeds. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

In past annual meetings of the NFL Players Association, the results often were a foregone conclusion. Labor grievances were minimal and Gene Upshaw would be reelected as the executive director whenever his term was expiring.

But after Upshaw's death last August, the tenor is far different as players and union officials gather in Hawaii for this year's meetings. The union representatives for the 32 teams are scheduled to vote Sunday to elect Upshaw's successor, who will have to lead the players amid a global economic crisis and with a possible labor confrontation with the NFL's franchise owners looming.

"This is the future of the NFL and the future of the players," former Washington Redskins defensive end Charles Mann said. "This is a big deal. I really care about this. I'm looking at this, hoping the right decision is made."

The four finalists for the job are former players Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and attorneys DeMaurice F. Smith and David Cornwell. Vincent and Armstrong are former union presidents. Smith is a D.C.-based partner at the law firm Patton Boggs with no substantial ties to the NFL. Cornwell has an extensive history representing NFL players.

"Whoever is chosen, the players are going to have to rally around that person," Houston Texans tight end Mark Bruener, a member of the players' ruling 10-member executive committee, said yesterday. "We do have to unify quickly behind the new executive director. The owners aren't going to sit around and wait for us."

The owners voted last year to exercise a reopener clause in their collective bargaining agreement with the players, ending the deal two years early. That move made the 2010 season the final season under the agreement, and the 2009 season the final one in it with a salary cap.

So the clock will be ticking when the new executive director is elected by a majority vote of the player reps -- Upshaw often said that if the salary cap ever went away, the players never would allow it to return -- and this round of collective bargaining imperils the sport's longstanding labor peace.

Upshaw predicted that the owners would consider a lockout of the players in 2011 and many owners have said they regard the last labor deal, negotiated by Upshaw and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006, as overly favorable to the players. But Upshaw and union general counsel Richard Berthelsen, who has served as acting executive director since Upshaw's death, have said the players won't agree to financial givebacks.

Some on the players' side now say they think that the owners sensed weakness and division among the players when the reopener vote was taken last year. And the owners' suspicions probably have been reinforced, those people say, by the apparent divisiveness of the union's search.

Upshaw died only days after having pancreatic cancer diagnosed, and he had only begun to implement a process for his successor to be chosen. He resisted efforts to have that successor picked while he remained in office. Vincent once was viewed as Upshaw's likely successor, given his credentials as the union's president while he was an active player and as a union executive afterward.

But Upshaw and Vincent had a bitter falling-out before Upshaw's death, associates say, and Vincent's candidacy has been plagued by accusations and published reports of alleged misdeeds. He was accused of prompting scrutiny by several members of Congress of the union's search process, and later of improperly disclosing personal information about agents to a friend and business partner. The union announced that it would investigate the allegations about Vincent's disclosure of confidential information about agents.

Upshaw reportedly had gathered e-mails as evidence of Vincent's improper disclosure about the agents, and Upshaw's widow, Terri, told Sports Illustrated she questions whether Vincent is the "right candidate" for the job. Vincent has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and he and his supporters have suggested that some Upshaw loyalists have attempted to undermine his candidacy.

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